One of the most common questions hiring managers ask job candidates is a simple one on the surface: "Why do you want to work here?" But it can be tricky to answer—because the real information they’re looking for is more complicated than that. What they’re really asking is something closer to this:
Do you know what this job is? And—to be a little paranoid—do you have some murky problem that I can’t see now? Are you about to get fired? Help me out here.
To get this right, you first need to recognize that—like so much in the interview experience—it isn’t just about you and your career goals. It’s about how those square with what the company needs.
Here’s how you can link the two, no matter what your other motivations might be for looking for a job or for going after this one in particular.
This question is rarely a showstopper—unless you want to leave your job for a negative reason. Sadly, there often is a negative reason for leaving, even if it’s not your fault. If that’s you, don’t let this question cause panic. It is always possible to give a sincere and positive answer regardless of your circumstances.
First, you can never know for certain what the interviewer is thinking, especially if you’ve just met for the first time. The interviewer might have assumed nothing but good things about you. Maybe they just intend the question to be an innocent warm-up, not a confession-seeker. Try to answer the question put to you rather than the question you fear they’re asking—the latter will lead you into trouble almost inevitably.
All the same, falling out with your boss or your colleagues will often be the precise reason you’re applying. After all, work is complicated. People are complicated. Falling out is so common that there’s even a saying about it: "People don’t leave companies; they leave people."
Maybe you’re bored and frustrated by what you do all day. You want a change of scene, or some progress. Maybe you need more money.
The point is this: You’re probably a perfectly normal human being. Wanting or needing to move on is just part of life, even if it’s not always to be welcomed.
So, your starting point is to feel in your heart that you’ve nothing to hide. If you feel you’re the only person in the world who can’t stand their current job, you’ll be on the back foot, and you will find it hard to sound natural and convincing. You will start to sweat. Your interviewer might pounce on your discomfort and start asking you much harder questions.
To prevent all that, you need to focus outward. Remember that interviews are ultimately not about you. They’re not about your terrible boss or your measly salary, or what you want from your next job. All those things come into play but, at heart, interviews are about solving somebody else’s problems, not yours.
So your answer should be linked to what’s on offer and what’s expected of you. Show you’re running toward something, not running away. It is at this point that good research will really pay off, for it will allow you to speak with sincerity when drawing distinctions between your current job and the vacancy. If you feel your industry is "Coke and Pepsi," where one company is supposedly much like another, you’re not researching hard enough.
It really boils down to one of two answers:
- In my current job I do X. You do X here too, but this is a better place to do X. Here’s how I would do X for you.
- My employer does X, but you do Y, and Y is what I want. Y is also what I’m good at and enjoy. Here’s how my resume relates to Y.
In both scenarios, it’s possible to give a sincere and useful answer without once mentioning your terrible boss. He was never going to solve your interviewer’s problems, so why bring him into the room? Try something like this instead:
You’re doing a lot of biotechnology investments here. I think biotechnology is the future, and I find it huge fun, too. I do like what I’m doing now, but it’s not quite biotechnology, although it’s closely related. On a personal note, I’ve always thought it best to change roles before reaching a plateau. Switch while I’m still on the way up, you know? I’ve decided now feels the right time for a move.
This article is adapted from 101 Job Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again by James Reed, published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by James Reed. It is reprinted with permission.